Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, causes red, itchy dry skin. The symptoms are caused by an inflammatory reaction in the skin. Some children affected by eczema outgrow the condition, but most people with eczema suffer from flare-ups of the condition throughout life. A key strategy in eczema prevention is to identify causes of eczema flare-ups and then avoid them.
Common triggers of eczema include the following:
- Excessively dry skin
- Certain soaps and detergents
- Irritating fabrics
- Cigarette smoke
- Solvents in cleaning agents
- Certain foods
- Other environmental irritants
Although many people think that eczema is an allergic reaction to environmental triggers, the inflammatory skin reaction isn’t the same as a true allergic reaction. The cause(s) of eczema are obscure, but seem to involve a combination of an inherited predisposition, abnormal immune system function, and a defect in the skin’s moisture barrier. However, it is clear that many eczema sufferers can reduce or even eliminate flare-ups by identifying and avoiding their own unique environmental triggers.
The best way to identify triggers is to be keenly observant of exposures or situations that seem to precede flare-ups. Keeping a diary of possible exposures and then noting when flare-ups occur allows the sufferer to look back and try to identify suspects. At first, keeping such a diary may be quite time-consuming. Anything and everything needs to be noted: the temperature, foods eaten, clothes worn, locations visited, activities engaged in, brands of soaps, cleansers, makeup and lotion used. After only a few weeks, however, patterns should begin to appear in the diary.
Once a suspect has been identified through the use of the diary, a withdrawal and then test approach needs to be used to identify, for sure, if the suspect is, indeed, an actual trigger. For example, if the suspect trigger is the detergent being used to wash clothing, the first step is to get rid of the detergent and replace it with a fragrance-free, neutral pH detergent. The clothing should be rinsed twice after each wash. The withdrawal period needs to last for several weeks.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that eczema sufferers often have multiple triggers, having a flare-up during the withdrawal period does not prove that the suspect trigger isn’t a trigger. A test also needs to be performed to be certain that the suspect is indeed a trigger
To perform the test, select a small area of skin currently unaffected by eczema. It’s best to select a location that has experienced eczema in the past, but is in an unobtrusive location, such as the feet or back of the knee. Apply the suspect trigger to the test area and wait for a day or two to see if a flare-up occurs. If a food is the suspect, talk to a doctor before trying a test. Some food allergies can cause life-threatening symptoms and therefore testing should be performed only under medically supervised conditions.
Some individuals prefer to just avoid all common eczema triggers rather than going through the process of identifying individual triggers. Wearing soft cotton clothing, keeping the house dust-free, using a humidifier in the winter, and avoiding all potentially irritating cleansers and personal care products is a strategy that works for many for eczema prevention.